As new climate change summit looms, UN environment efforts still a mess, study says

This month, the United Nations will double down at another climate summit on calls for sweeping and costly global action on a wide array of environmental fronts, as part of a drive for “sustainable development” and a comprehensive new global climate control treaty.

But an important U.N. investigative unit is warning that the world organization’s management of environmental programs and treaties is a chaotic mess that has not improved much in years.

Among other things, the U.N. investigators warn of:

  • Large-scale duplication  of effort and unnecessary competition between 28 U.N. organizations and the managers of 21 international treaties  that deal with vital environmental issues;
  • A sense of environmental priorities that focuses on issues “that are often accompanied by mass media attention, such as climate change and green economy,” giving less attention to other important priorities;
  • The related lack of “a clear division of labor” among U.N. development organizations and a welter of U.N. treaty bodies that slops over into definitions of the boundaries between “environmental protection and sustainable development;”
  • Huge, uncoordinated overall increases in environmental spending—the inspectors report that as of 2012, U.N. spending on environmental issues was increasing faster than its spending on anti-poverty efforts—that also failed to make a distinction between “normative” and “operational” spending, i.e.,  between generating mandates to protect the environment and various types of actual  activity;
  • Lack of a “transparent” U.N.-wide framework to track spending “in a manner that would pave the way for more efficient allocation of resources,” not to mention clarifying the distinction between spending on conservation and other actions.
  • Evidence of what the report calls a “conflict of interest” by project managers of the United Nations Environment Program, the ostensible flagship of U.N. environmental action, in hiring outside evaluators to examine their own projects.

The updated “review of environmental governance in the United Nations system” was published over the summer by a Geneva-based organization known as the Joint Inspection Unit, or JIU, which is charged with examining management issues across the entire sprawling U.N. system, and submitting findings to the U.N.’s top leadership.

It is a return to an examination that JIU made of the same topic in 2008, when the unit found a lot to be concerned about, much of it linked to the U.N.’s tendency since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to link  “sustainable development” with environmental preservation, leading to the same kind of organizational confusion that the JIU still finds today.

In its 2008 report, the JIU made a dozen recommendations on how the U.N. needed to refocus itself on separating environmental conservation from “sustainable development” by giving greater authority to the Nairobi-based United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), separately tracking environmental and development spending, and otherwise clarify the expanding and expensive confounding of development and environmental priorities. Almost all of the recommendations were accepted at the time by the U.N.’s top brass.

Since then, however, the number of U.N. global conferences merging the environment and “sustainable development” has only multiplied, culminating in last year’s 20-year anniversary gathering to commemorate the original Earth Summit—and push the “sustainable development” agenda still further.

When it came to the clarification of tasks and assignments—and subsequent elimination of waste and duplication-- that the JIU suggested, not so much has apparently been done.

According to JIU, the 20th anniversary Rio conference in 2012 “agreed to make a few institutional rearrangements,” including  an expansion of the mandate of UNEP that would “empower it”  to lead efforts to “formulate United Nations system-wide strategies on the environment,” but not a lot else has taken place in the areas of clarification of the roles of the remainder of the organization.

The 97-page JIU update report contains one lengthy paragraph inserted into its executive summary that lauds a number of vaguely worded changes it describes as “significant improvements” made in the wake of its 2008 review. These include “enhancement of the UNEP coordinating mandate on the environment,” and “better coordination and mainstreaming of environmental and environment-related activities in the field.”


The paragraph is otherwise laden with dense but vague references to “enhanced synergies and efficiency in the management of the secretariats” of various multilateral environmental treaties on hazardous waste disposal and organic pollutants, and “intensified cluster synergies in thematic and sectorial areas.”

But the main body of the report restates a blunt assessment from the 2008 report that “the current framework of international environmental governance is weakened by institutional fragmentation and specialization,” and adds: “The statement is unfortunately still valid six years later.”


Meantime, UNEP has produced a dizzying tally of some 285 environmental goals that exist across the U.N. system that the inspectors call “the first step towards the identification of common goals and system-wide planning for results in the environmental area.”

The list includes “goals and objectives drawn from existing international treaties and non-legally binding instruments” and includes everything from promises to monitor and coordinate action against forest fires to “substantially increase the global share of renewable energy resources.”

The list, however, is just that: a list—albeit one that gives some indicator of the staggering array of targets and priorities that have been tucked away in a host of international agreements over the years. As the JIU report sardonically notes, additional progress “cannot be achieved without coordinating responsibilities and efforts.”


As for UNEP’s increased role in global management of the environment, the JIU noted that its scientific findings were, at times, questionable.

Different divisions of UNEP “sometimes produce separate scientific assessments outside the [UNEP] Office of the Chief Scientist,” the report notes. That office was founded, according to UNEP’s website, “to help strengthen the interface between global environmental science and policy while making the science base of UNEP’s activities stronger.”

Moreover, those outside assessments are used by project managers to assess their projects supported by UNEP’s Environment Fund, which is described on the UNEP website as “is the main source of funding for UNEP to implement its Program of Work and Medium Term Strategy.”

(Current UNEP budgeting calls for “voluntary” contributions to the Environment Fund of $118 million for 2014, and $134 million in 2015. The U.S. contribution in both years is still apparently undefined; in the past, it has ranged between roughly $6.2 million and $6.6 million.)


In other words, when assessing their own projects, UNEP officials hire their own outsiders to do the job.

The JIU report calls those actions “an issue of conflict of interest, and notes that “despite its competent scientific assessment capability the Office of the Chief Scientist has never been involved in the scientific assessment of those projects.”

Small wonder that the current JIU inspectors acknowledge  tepidly that “progress has been made,” in  bringing a sense of order and efficiency –as well as objectivity and restraint--to the U.N.’s huge and still-growing menu of environmental ambition, they are much more firm in stating that still, “there is much to be accomplished.”

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Russell